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How An Arrogant Mistake Helped Me Remember My True Leadership Style

Being tough may work for some, but this entrepreneur learned the hard way how to be true to her own leadership style.

How An Arrogant Mistake Helped Me Remember My True Leadership Style
[Photo: Flickr user Sylvain Moreau]

A few weeks ago I screwed up big-time.

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Until this point, a pair of advisors had been helping me for free, and I’d asked them whether they would join the business on a more formal basis. It’s difficult to value a relationship like this, and when I tried to price their contribution in dollars and cents, the calculation proved impractical. We couldn’t afford their price, and I didn’t want to look weak. In an effort to appear strong, I put a low offer to them and told them to take it or leave it. I killed the deal–and possibly my relationship with them, as well.

Before the meeting, I hadn’t thought about what I would say. Words fell from my mouth like boulders off a cliff, smashing the shore below. The energy in the room collapsed. They were offended and hurt; I immediately knew I had blown it.

I’ve always struggled in difficult conversations. In my heart, I want everyone to be happy, but my head tells me to be strong. I’m terrified of appearing to be a pushover, but whenever I try to be tough, I know that I come across like a cold bitch.

A week after the meeting I caught up with one of those mentors I had offended, and he made a profound observation about my actions. “You went into hammer mode. The hammer is the most ineffective of all leadership styles, and for you, it is very unnatural,” he said. “Some people are naturally hammers. You are good at other, much better leadership styles that most people find difficult. Why use the hammer?”

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I was equating being a great leader with being hard, determined, and able to keep people in line. But this never came naturally to me, so I studied and practiced. I read biographies on Steve Jobs, Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller, Sumner Redstone, and lots more. My bookshelf is lined with stories and advice from people who are expert hammers. I watched DVDs on team management and copied the actions of people I wanted to resemble–people whom I thought were much better leaders than I was because they were tough.

But with all this practice, I hadn’t improved. I wanted to be demanding like Steve Jobs, but I couldn’t master that level of toughness without upsetting or offending people. Whenever I tried, I felt I was not being authentic. My mentor’s comment made me wonder, “Could I be a great leader by being myself? Maybe I don’t need a hammer at all?”

I thought back to one of my first experiences as a leader–running my high school newspaper, School Ties. I wanted our newspaper to be the best ever, so I assembled a team and sent them out on various tasks. After a few weeks I became frustrated–no one cared about the paper like I did. The ad sales team came back with no leads, our contributor content was fluffy at best, and the person in charge of printing and distribution failed to tell me that our friendly print house had shut down. No one else would print the paper at a price we could afford. I was angry. My first instinct was to call everyone in one by one, yell until I was red in the face, and threaten to tell the supervising teacher.

A week before print deadline our initial team of 30 had dwindled to around 10, we had a half-finished paper, and we couldn’t afford to print it. Our teacher, Mrs. Allen, announced that she was canceling the publication.

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At that moment I felt a red burst of adrenaline, refused to accept that we couldn’t do this, jumped on a chair, and addressed the group. I reminded them of our vision for the paper and the importance of students having a voice at school. I promised Mrs. Allen that we would deliver an awesome paper on time and at cost. I remember the look of shock on her face: she gave us two days to pull it together. We locked ourselves in the office until all articles were finished. I went through the telephone yellow pages, calling printers until I found one who accepted the job at the price we required. The team energy was palpable. Next week, we published the most successful newspaper issue in the school’s history.

I was 15 when I initially learned a lesson that I forgot when I entered business. In tense negotiations or when someone isn’t delivering as promised, I can feel threatened. But instead of pulling out the hammer and trying to force the issue, I get far better results when I stick to what I’m naturally good at: vision and inspiration.

As I glance at my bookshelf again, I can’t help but notice the stories I’ve read over and over again. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and William Wilberforce: None of my favorite leaders needed a hammer. Their power came from absolute integrity and an ability to make dreams a reality in the minds of other people.

So, I’ve decided to throw the hammer away for good. For the past week, when things haven’t gone as I had hoped, I’ve listened, chosen my words carefully, and focused on inspiring the person to act. It requires more effort, but the conversations are so much more productive. I lead by being myself, and everyone walks away smiling.

About the author

Rebekah is Founder and CEO of Posse.com, a social search engine that helps people find and recommend their favorite places and interact with storeowners. Posse is used by 60,000 merchants worldwide and is backed by leaders from Google, Facebook, Twitter and E-Bay.

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